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russ Jul 15th, 2002 07:30 AM

Trip Report - Milan to Loire Valley to Paris (continuation of our Rome, Bologna, Sirmione, Orta, Milan trip)
 
This continues from our Rome, Bologna, Sirmione, Orta, Milan trip which I posted on another thread.<BR><BR>TRANSPORTATION - MILAN TO PARIS TO THE LOIRE VALLEY<BR><BR>We bought our TGV tickets in Rome about 9 days before our departure from Milan. Our 7-hour train ride left Milan at 9:15am. We could have taken an overnight train, but after traveling for 12 days, it was nice to have some time to sit and read, with the added bonus of scenery that comes to you for a change.<BR><BR>Upon arriving at Gare de Lyon, we picked up our rental car with only a minimum of delay. Although I had booked with Hertz in the U.S. via their Internet site, and then confirmed this with a phone call, they had us booked in a 9-person minivan, instead of the compact car that I had requested. Once we convinced them that we didn’t have 7 children stowed in our luggage, the problem was resolved. So, with only one wrong turn getting out of the train station followed by an illegal U-turn to get to the Autoroute, we were on our way to the Loire Valley.<BR><BR>TIP: I know that this seems really obvious, but get the most detailed road map you can find. I had bought a Michelin map of France in the US, as I could not find regional maps. As a result, we spent some time guessing at turnoffs that were not indicated. Once we stopped at a gas station and bought guide 237 (Paris and the surrounding area) we had no problems. Unfortunately, the Loire Valley is split between map numbers 232 and 238, so once we got to our destination, we bought the Michelin map called Route of the Valley of Kings, which covers the entire valley, highlighting the major chateaux. It was perfect.<BR><BR>Our destination for the next 3 nights was Onzain, about half way between Blois and Amboise, or 20 minutes from each. In total, it took about 90 minutes by car, mostly speeding.<BR><BR>LANGUAGE<BR><BR>Since we were coming from Italy, where we speak the language, to a country were we speak virtually none, I was eager to try to use a little French. I bought 2 prerecorded French language programs about 6 months before the trip: Berlitz French, which is a single CD geared just toward travelers; and the 8 CD set called French with Michel Thomas. I liked the Michel Thomas method, as each section builds on the lessons from the preceding section, so you actually learn. He also points out all the English words that come from the French (about 40% of them he claims) so you only have to learn is the pronunciation for these. The recording follows a lesson with 2 actual students, one of whom drove me crazy. I did learn a lot; however, it was not geared toward travel. I found that after I went through this set a few times, I was better equipped to understand the more complex travel related sentences on the second half of the Berlitz CD.<BR><BR>TIP: The most important thing I learned was “I’m sorry, I don’t speak very much French, do you speak English”? This ALWAYS got a positive response, with either a reply in English, or a very pleasant, if brief, conversation in my rudimentary French. The only exception to this was the 16-year-old cashier in Amboise who was more interested in talking to her friends than taking my money, but I attribute this more to age (hers, not mine) than to my pitiful French.<BR><BR>

russ Jul 15th, 2002 07:31 AM

SIGHTSEEING <BR><BR>Since we stayed for 3 nights, we had 2 full days of sight seeing, which we devoted primarily to 4 chateaux, as follows:<BR><BR>Day One<BR><BR>Villandry – about 8 miles west of Tours. If you like gardens, then this is the place to go. Considered to be one of France’s best examples of Renaissance gardens, it combines elements of both Italian and French designs. The gardens are laid out on 3 levels which include: the Kitchen Garden – geometric shapes made from plantings of lettuce, cabbage and kale, among others; the herb garden; the ornamental garden, with hedges trimmed into shapes such as hearts and shields, and the water garden. We had a pleasant lunch outdoors at the restaurant just outside the main gate: 2-course menu for 9 euro each.<BR><BR>Azay-le-Rideau – about 20 minutes south of Villandry. This is a small and manageable chateau, and one that is often photographed with its pepper-pot towers reflecting in the pond, which also serves as its moat. Although I enjoyed it, in retrospect this is the one I would have cut out if I had to, but if you are already at Villandry, it is definitely worth the minimal time and effort to make the trip.<BR><BR>On our way back to Onzain we stopped in Amboise and walked around. Dominated by its imposing chateau, it is a pleasant small town, with a couple of charming half-timbered buildings still remaining. Since we had already seen 2 that day, we decided to forgo the chateau and instead headed up the hill for a tour of Le Clos-Luc&eacute;, the brick and white stone house where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last 3 years of his life. If you enjoy both history and science you might like the exhibit of models made from 40 of Leonardo’s drawings of his inventions. Everything from planes, helicopters and steam engines - some of which would have never worked, but others that were just ahead of their time, waiting only for the technology to catch up to his brilliant mind. Fascinating stuff.<BR><BR>

russ Jul 15th, 2002 07:32 AM

Day Two<BR><BR>Chenonceau – about 30 minutes south of Onzain. This gets the prize for best all around chateau. The gardens were nice, although not nearly as stunning as those at Villandry; the exterior was beautiful, set on arches which cross the Cher river; but I was not prepared for the interiors, which were the most elaborate of the 4 chateaux we saw on this trip. I particularly liked the kitchen, which is built into 2 of the piers in the river supporting the building. Since each pier is connected to the next by an arch, it is necessary to go up 4 or 5 stairs to get from one area to the next. At the top of the stairs (at the apex of the arch) is a door that enabled supplies to be loaded directly from the river to the kitchen - a little glimpse into life in the 16th century.<BR><BR>Chambord – Probably the best known chateau in the Loire Valley, Chambord tries to accomplish by sheer size, what Villandry does with plants and Chenonceau does with balance. Viewed from a distance, it is quite impressive, topped with a jumble of chimneys and towers, which seem to fill every square inch of the center portion of the roof. Once inside, the rooms are large, although more utilitarian looking due to the lack of furnishings in all but a few important rooms, and its layout based on a traditional castle with a central keep. <BR><BR>The 2 most visually satisfying features are the double helix staircase in the center, with 2 independent circular stairways that never meet. Pretty, but I’m sure a nightmare for anyone who was going up to the second floor to find the person on the second floor coming down to meet on the first. Once again, form triumphs over function.<BR><BR>The other highlight is the aforementioned roof. Walking out onto the rooftop terrace is like walking into a miniature city; as if a 16th century San Gimignano had been built on the roof to Napolean-sized proportions (to mix metaphors of both time and place).<BR><BR>Since the day was quite warm and we had several hours of daylight left (this being the second week of June) we headed back to our own mini-chateau to lounge by the pool before dinner and catch up with a good book (In this case, the Mask of Apollo, by Mary Renault. It’s OK to read about the ancient Greek empire while in France, no?)<BR><BR>

russ Jul 15th, 2002 07:33 AM

GIVERNY<BR><BR>As we had to bring the car back to Paris the next evening, we decided to go a bit out of the way and make a stop at Monet’s house and gardens at Giverny. After a 2.5 hour drive we arrived at his comparatively modest country home.<BR><BR>Mid-June turned out to be a great time for the gardens. We don’t have many opium poppies growing in my neighborhood, so it was startling to see row upon row of 5-foot stalks in full bloom. I wasn’t sure if we were looking at a flower garden, or Monet’s personal stash, but it was impressive all the same. The door to the house was covered with climbing roses, and the area out front was a carpet of scarlet-red geraniums. Of course, there was also the famous Japanese garden. We were fortunate enough to see the water lilies in bloom, and naturally, we took the requisite photos on the Japanese bridge. Interestingly, the auto focus on my camera was acting up and all the photos have a somewhat blurred, dare I say impressionist, quality to them. Coincidence? Hummm.<BR><BR>I had a little “wow” moment while standing in the house looking at a photograph of Monet taken in the same room that I was in. The photographer had obviously been positioned in the same place where I was standing, and the photograph was displayed where Monet had stood. Of course, I had known that this was where he had lived and worked, but this made the experience really palpable, thinking that if I could just turn back time, he would be standing there right in front of me.<BR><BR>I overheard some people who had arrived on tour buses saying that they thought that Giverny was a waste of their time, but I couldn’t disagree with them more.<BR><BR>

russ Jul 15th, 2002 07:33 AM

PARIS<BR><BR>Driving back into Paris was easier than driving into Rome or Milan, and we dropped the car off at the Gare Montparnasse, after a 360 degree loop around the station to find the Hertz office. From there, we took a brief taxi ride to our hotel in Saint-Germain-des-Pr&eacute;s.<BR><BR>HOTEL<BR><BR>Hotel Millesime – 15, rue Jacob, 6th arrond. 3 star hotel, 170 euro/night. We skipped the breakfast at 15 euro each, and opted instead for a 6 euro breakfast at one of the many street side cafes in the area.<BR><BR>Like the Santa Chiara in Rome, room 14 had exactly what we were looking for: a quiet room on a central courtyard, air-conditioner, firm mattresses and modern plumbing. It was not big and did not have a view, but it was in a fantastic location, only one block from the church of Saint-Germain-des-Pr&eacute;s, the Rue Buci and 2 metro stops. The reception desk staff was always friendly and helpful, and made restaurant reservations for us a few times as well. <BR><BR>SIGHTSEEING <BR><BR>Since this was our third trip to Paris, we spent more time wandering aimlessly about than hitting the major tourist spots. After exploring the shops on Rues Jacob and San Andre des Artes, we continued eastward through the Latin Quarter, turning northward to Ile St. Louis for ice cream at Bertillion. The cassis sorbet was so intense; it was like an electric shock to the mouth. Kind of like testing a 9-volt battery with your tongue, but with berry flavor thrown in.<BR><BR>The next day we took the metro to the Maubert stop and got off in the middle of a wonderful street market. After buying some fruit to snack on, we made our way to the pedestrian area of Rue Mouffetard. Admiring the displays of rotisserie chickens and fresh produce, we worked our way down the street in time to catch the last couple tunes enthusiastically played by a New Orleans-style jazz quintet. Our eventual goal was to see 2 sights that we had missed on our previous trips: the Mosque near the Jardin de Plantes, and the modern Institut du Monde Arabe, across the Seine from the Ile St. Louis.<BR><BR>The Paris mosque looks as if it were lifted right out of Morocco and dropped whole into the city. All of the features are there: the crenellated walls, the green tile roof and the giant square minaret tower. Inside, the walls were covered with intricate multi-colored tiles, surrounding sunken gardens with fountains that did not work. This seemed to be the ultimate authentic detail, as none of the fountains were working in Marrakech when we visited there either.<BR>

russ Jul 15th, 2002 07:34 AM

Working our way toward the Seine, and fast-forwarding to the 20th century, the Institut du Monde Arabe was built in 1987 and features windows covered with moving aluminum apertures, designed to mimic traditional Arabesque latticework, except that these open and close in response to the sunlight. The effect is at once modern and timeless. There is a great view from the top, with Notre Dame viewed from behind and Sacr&eacute; Coeur floating in the distance. We had a delicious, if pricey, tagine for lunch at the roof top restaurant.<BR><BR>After lunch we headed over to the Pantheon. Although perhaps inspired by the one in Rome, the Paris Pantheon is a much larger edifice, and about 1700 years newer. We went in with the intention of going into the dome, so I spoke with the woman taking tickets, opening with my standard, “I don’t speak French very well, do you speak English?” When she said no, I wondered that, if I asked the question, would I understand the reply; so I said in my version of French. “OK, you must speak slowly. It is possible to go…”at which point I indicated towards the ceiling. She slowly responded in French with something along the lines of, “It’s not possible to go alone. You must go with a guided tour; however, there is one meeting right here in 10 minutes”. The fact that I understood most of what she said came as a shock and was one of the most gratifying moments of the trip. Thank you Michel Thomas.<BR><BR>After the Pantheon we crossed the Seine to the Pompidou Center for an incredible exhibition of surrealist painting. I have never seen such a massive collection of Dal&iacute; and Magritte in one location, and it was remarkable too see the actual works of so many pieces I had only previously seen in photographs. In addition to the painting, there was also some sculpture as well. I don’t know who the artist was, but the most memorable piece was a cup, saucer and spoon made out of fur. <BR><BR>This was our first time to the Pompidou Center, and the views alone were worth the trip. There is also a cavernous restaurant on the top surrounded by glass walls. In the middle are these amorphous pod-like rooms that seem to have sprouted out of the floor. Each pod holds 10 or 12 tables and is painted silver on the outside and a bright primary red or yellow inside (You may have seen these in print ads for Louis Vuitton). We had also seen these in a magazine article, and were anxious to get a closer look. By now I was getting a little braver with my bad French, so I asked, “ It is possible to make a visit without eating?” No problem, they let us right in to take a look around. Thank you nice French people.<BR>

russ Jul 15th, 2002 07:35 AM

RESTAURANTS<BR><BR>I love the area south of blvd. St-Germain and east of rue Bonapart. Every 200-year-old brightly painted wood storefront screams TAKE MY PICTURE. It is with great restraint that I resisted what would inevitably have been a series of identical photos, with only the colors and names of the shops changing from one to the next. <BR><BR>On one of these picturesque streets you will find Le Machon d’Henry – 8, rue Guisarde. A modest bistro, the simple grilled breast of duck is served seasoned only with salt and pepper and no sauce mucking it up. Delicious. Start with the Proven&ccedil;al tapenade and goat’s cheese served with a hot baguette. Our favorite. 50 euro total for 2.<BR><BR>La M&eacute;diterran&eacute;e – 2, place de l’Od&eacute;on <BR>Outdoor seating on the quiet place across from the Od&eacute;on. Good seafood. 2 course menus starting at 24 euro. <BR><BR>Le Bistro de Breteuil – 3, place de Breteuil – 7th arrond.<BR>The large place where this is located is really a traffic circle, although on Sunday night, mercifully devoid of traffic. There are great views of the Eiffel Tower and Hotel des Invalides from the center of the place (not from the restaurant). The outdoor seating was the most pleasant of this trip. The meals are all-inclusive. For 29 euro you get an aperitif, appetizer, main course, a bottle of wine, water and dessert or cheese. The escargots were quite good but the roasted potatoes were soggy and tasted reheated; still, a pretty good value for the price.<BR><BR>Le Bistro Papillion – 6, rue Papillion (Cadet metro). This was our last day and it was far too hot to sit outside. The best thing about this restaurant was the air-conditioning and a real non-smoking room. Food was good, though not phenomenal, about on par with the previous place. 3 course menus at 29 euro each.<BR><BR>

russ Jul 15th, 2002 07:36 AM

VERSAILLES<BR> <BR>We managed to miss Versailles on our first two trips. The other times I just couldn’t tear myself away from the city I was so enjoying in order to go somewhere else. We chose a Sunday because our guidebook stated that this was the only day that the fountains were running. This was mostly true.<BR><BR>TIP: As we had bought a museum pass in Paris, our guidebook indicated that we should go to line C to bypass the main ticket line; however, the ticket taker at line C said we had to go to line A. Line A, however, was the line for people buying tickets, not for pass holders. We finally decided to start working our way up the alphabet. Line B was for groups, but we gave it a shot. Jackpot! They let us right in. So you heard it here: pass holders go to line B.<BR><BR>So, we had arrived at the chateau about 11:30am; but, by the time we had gotten inside, it was noon. It was then that we discovered that the fountains do run on Sundays, between the hours of 11:00 and noon, and again from 3:30 to 5:00. We had just missed them, and if we wanted to see the fountains working, we would have to wait 3-1/2 hours.<BR><BR>We spent about an hour in the chateau, but were honestly a little burnt out on chateaux in general after the Loire Valley, so we hightailed it out to the gardens, where we found a pleasant outdoor caf&eacute; in which to eat, which was actually decent and reasonably priced. We continued on to the Trianons and Marie Antoinette’s little hameau. All the while, we were passing dry fountain after dry fountain.<BR><BR>Working our way back to the chateau, we rested for an hour at the highest point of the gardens. Finally, at 3:30pm, all across the vista, dozens of fountains came to life. We would have liked to have gone back to see each and every one of them, but after walking 3 miles already in the blazing heat, we contented ourselves with the closest of the principal fountains, which were in fact the most impressive anyway.<BR><BR>A FINAL WORD ON THE WEATHER<BR><BR>We had arrived in France on June 11 prepared for the forecast of daytime highs of 70 degrees Fahrenheit. By the time our last day rolled around it was 95 degrees with 100% humidity. We spent most of our last day trying not to move too much, having lunch in the shade in the place Dauphine and taking a nap in the middle of the day. We finally summoned up the energy to go to St-Chapel and Notre Dame, with the knowledge that an ice-cold sorbet awaited us if we were good. We did not bring shorts but sure wished we had. It seemed like most of Paris broke out their beachwear on June 17th. The next day it was back to Los Angeles to cool off – tired but happy, and already planning our return.<BR>

Luann Jul 15th, 2002 10:26 AM

Russ...was the couryard at the hotel Millesime like a garden, and did they serve breakfast in the courtyard. I know you didn't eat breakfast there, but maybe you noticed.

russ Jul 15th, 2002 01:03 PM

The courtyard was very small, not really a garden at all. Maybe 4 or 5 tables out there. I never even went out there. Breakfast was served in the basement, and I didn't see anybody eating breakfast in the courtyard.<BR>

jeanne Jul 15th, 2002 05:48 PM

Russ: Thank you for this terrific trip report...what an interesting itinerary! <BR><BR>I also bought the Michel Thomas tapes and am just finishing....TA DA...tape number 8! I think his method is terrific. (Let me guess, it was NOT the young man who got on your nerves!?). <BR><BR>You're the first one I've heard rave about that area around St-Germaine/Rue Bonaparte. Since I've booked a hotel right there on Rue Bonaparte (near St Sulpice) I'm happy to hear it's a good area to "wander" in. <BR><BR>Welcome home. <BR><BR>Thanks again for the report. <BR>

Carl Jul 15th, 2002 09:45 PM

Oh yea, I couldn't stand the female student on that Michel Thomas tape. What was up with her?

jeanne Jul 16th, 2002 03:01 AM

I think she's an alien.

russ Jul 16th, 2002 07:08 AM

Jeanne,<BR><BR>Thanks for the feedback. Have a great trip!<BR><BR>russ

Jane Jul 16th, 2002 08:30 AM

Great report!<BR><BR>I am in complete and amused agreement with the comments about the annoying student on the Michel Thomas CDs. I did find this method very helpful, though, to bring back the little bit of French I learned many years ago. I am also working with the Berlitz series now.

Howard Jul 16th, 2002 09:11 AM

For someone to say that Giverny is a waste of their time is heresy! Too bad your photos were blurry, as the gardens are a virtual photographer's paradise.

russ Jul 16th, 2002 11:45 AM

Howard,<BR><BR>I actually had a digital camera with me as well as the problematic film camera, so I have shots that are in focus as well; but I really kind of like the blurry shots. They look more like Monet's paintings.

Howard Jul 16th, 2002 11:56 AM

Then, if you haven't been there yet, your next trip should include Venice, which my wife described as having a "Monet sun"!<BR>Glad that you got some good clear shots along with those of Monet quality!

Sue Jul 16th, 2002 01:44 PM

Russ, thank you for your report. I particularly liked your opinionated view of the Loire chateaux. Our own time will be quite restricted in this area, so your comments will help us to be selective about what we see.<BR><BR>Now to play devil's advocate. What stood out for you about Giverny: the house, the idea of the artist living/working there, the garden, or....? And can you possibly take a guess as to why some people might not enjoy it? Does one have to be a Monet lilies series fan to see it as something other than 'just another garden'? Or could it be that the crowds for some people might be a distraction? Any and all guesses would be appreciated.

russ Jul 16th, 2002 03:14 PM

Howard,<BR><BR>I was fortunate enough to have lived in Bologna for 2 years, which is only 90 minutes from Venice, so I was able to get lots of photos, both in and out of focus.<BR><BR>Sue,<BR><BR>That's a really subjective question, but I'll give it a shot.<BR><BR>What stood out...<BR><BR>1) I love gardens. Between the roses, the poppies, the geraniums, and the waterlilies, I was sold the moment we walked in. I also liked the jumbled, overgrown quality of the gardens after the very formal gardens in the Loire Valley. I'd say that was just me, but my 78 year old mother liked the gardens, and she doesn't know Claude Monet from Lisa Bonet.<BR><BR>2) There is that recognigtion of having seen so many of the Japanese garden paintings and realizing, "There is that bridge", or, "this is the angle from which he painted those waterlilies".<BR><BR>3) As I mentioned above, being in the room where Monet painted and looking at the view from his windows was moving for me for the history. For many others it will have no effect at all.<BR><BR>Why might some people not enjoy it:<BR><BR>1) It was crowded. - It's true. If someone can't get over that, they definately shouldn't go.<BR><BR>2) I gave up a day in Paris for this? - I am not being flip here. If I had spent 2 hours traveling each way to and from Paris by train and bus, it might have been anti-climatic to me, too. I personally wouldn't do this trip unless I was already passing through the area on the way to or from Paris.<BR><BR>3) It is just another garden. - If you are going for the most amazing garden of your life, forget it. It was very nice. I liked it. It wasn't life changing.<BR><BR>4) I really wanted to go to Euro-Disney - No comment.<BR><BR>To sum up, I guess I enjoyed it for seeing the reality that inspired the art, and the history surrounding it. For example, the White House is not the most amazing piece of achitechure in the U.S., but that is not the point. There is history there. <BR><BR>Hope that helps.<BR>


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